Andy Newell was eighth in Friday’s 1.4-kilometer classic sprint at World Cup Finals, and while that’s nothing to scoff at, it’s not anywhere near what the 30-year-old U.S. Ski Team sprinter is accustomed to.
In 103 World Cup starts, Newell has tallied three outright podiums. He’s finished in the top 10 of the World Cup sprint rankings three out of the last four years, excluding this season.
He’s never won a race, but has been the most consistent man on the circuit when it comes to scoring points. He’s usually one of the fastest in qualifiers, and hasn’t missed the top 30 needed to advance to the heats in the last two seasons.
That’s all great, Newell said in a phone interview, but it becomes increasingly harder to meet the bigger, season-long goals when you’re having trouble getting past the quarterfinals.
Newell squeaked into the semifinals on Friday as a lucky loser who finished third in his quarterfinal, but the ticket came with a warning after he apparently took too many skate strides while jumping in and out of the tracks before the finish.
To his credit, Newell wasn’t the only man reprimanded; Finland’s Martti Jylhä received a similar warning after placing second in his quarterfinal. Both men went on to ski the final (unlike overall sprint champion Ola Vigen Hattestad of Norway, who was relegated to last for obstruction in Jylhä’s quarterfinal).
“It’s not a huge deal because I’m typically really good about not skating in classic races,” Newell said. “That’s just been my first offense in the last few years.”
A second yellow card could equal a disqualification in a future race, but with two distance races left in the World Cup season, both of which involve skating (Saturday’s skiathlon and Sunday’s 15 k freestyle pursuit), Newell wasn’t too concerned. He was more preoccupied with the fact that he finished 15th in the overall Sprint World Cup.
“That’s a pretty disappointing finish for me,” he said. “Even though I finished eighth today in the race, I actually got passed by two people in the sprint standings. It’s really tight this year, but I definitely needed a podium in there.”
Newell finished fifth in the Sprint Cup last year and a career-best fourth in 2010. “I still have my eyes on a top-three finish and definitely looking towards a Globe at some point,” he said.
As for his races, the Shaftsbury, Vt., native said he enjoyed the course and felt like he was skiing tactically well, especially on the uphills. Off the back of his semifinal early, Newell charged to the front of the pack up the first climb, even with Russia’s Sergey Ustiugov. The only American to qualify for the rounds, Newell slipped to third, then fifth on the curving downhill, and positioned himself in fourth before the finish. There, he was out-double-poled by Russia’s Nikita Kriukov for third (Kriukov ended up challenging Ustiugov for second in a photo finish).
Newell said his finish played out similarly in both his quarterfinal and semifinal.
“In both cases, [I] came into the finishing stretch in good position and just maybe didn’t have enough in the double pole in the end,” he said.
He finished 1.18 seconds behind Sweden’s Teodor Peterson, who won the semifinal and went on to win the final as well. Their semifinal was the slower of the two, and Newell did not advance to the final.
While that’s sprint racing, Newell said it’s been a little more about a lack of momentum for him.
“I struggled a little bit this year making it into the finals, which is not what you want to see,” he said.
He was second in three skate qualifiers and made the finals in Szlarska Poręba, Poland, in January, where he placed sixth for his season-best sprint. While his training was similar to the previous year, Newell said he mostly needed to race more heats.
“Sprint racing is a momentum sport, and you get stuck for the last few weeks here on the World Cup, I haven’t been making it past the quarterfinals and that’s not great practice,” he said. “That’s what makes sprinting hard. The worse you do, the less practice you get at racing World Cups.”
He pointed out the success of his teammate on the U.S. Ski Team and Stratton Mountain School T2 Team, Sophie Caldwell, who’s made the final in three out of the last four sprints.
“She’s been racing a lot of heats and she continues to move on,” Newell said. “If you’re a skier that hasn’t made it through the quarterfinals in a few weeks, you sort of lose your game.”
Two weeks after notching her first World Cup podium in the skate sprint in Lahti, Finland, Caldwell advanced to Friday’s 1.2 k women’s final, along with teammate Kikkan Randall. The overall Sprint World Cup champion for the third-straight season, Randall placed fourth and Caldwell took sixth, a career best for the 23-year-old Vermonter in a classic sprint.
In addition to Randall and Caldwell, two other American women made the heats, with Sadie Bjornsen qualifying in fifth and Ida Sargent advancing in 24th.
Bjornsen squared off against both Randall and Caldwell in the quarterfinal, and finished third behind them in that order. While she was fewer than seven-tenths of a second behind Randall, their heat was the slowest, eliminating Bjornsen’s shot at moving on as a lucky loser and putting her 13th overall.
“It was a fun race out there today, but I have to say, it left me wanting more,” Bjornsen wrote in an email. “It is nice to see that I have a good form back after a little break in the middle of the season with illness, but I think I have found my grove again.”
Bjornsen, 24, explained qualifying for her first World Cup Finals was an achievement in itself. She wrote that it was fun to compete against two of her teammates, and while she got off to a strong start and took the lead at the top of the climb before the stadium, she “just didn’t have the extra gas at the end.”
With all three Americans leading down into the grandstand, Randall moved to the front over the last rise and Bjornsen followed in second. Caldwell stayed in close contact and passed Bjornsen before the finish, clocking in 0.27 seconds behind Randall.
“I went out there with no strategy in mind, other than to look for openings … and that found me in the front most of the race,” Bjornsen wrote. “It was challenging to race from the front with so much drafting out there, but again, you have to learn from every race. Surprising so, I still haven’t gotten to do much sprint racing this year, but I just keep trying every weekend, and one of these times it will come together as it should and could!”
If two people had to beat her, she was glad it was her teammates.
“I wish I could have been racing along side them, but that day will come for many of us on the team that are just outside that advancing place!” Bjornsen wrote. “Largest congrats of the day goes to Kikkan for winning her third sprint globe! Again and again she keeps proving she is in fact the best!!”
Bjornsen finished 45th in the Sprint World Cup after missing several races in the middle of the season due to illness. Randall led the group in first, 43 points ahead of Germany’s Denise Herrmann in second, and 65 points ahead of Norway’s Ingvild Flugstad Østberg in third.
Caldwell placed eighth in the final sprint standings, and teammate Jessie Diggins, who was outside the top 30 in 34th on Friday, notched 20th to make the Red Group.
Ida Sargent was two places from making the Red Group in 32nd. Another Vermont native, she placed 20th overall after finishing fourth in her quarterfinal, 4.28 seconds behind Herrmann, who won the heat.
U.S. women’s coach Matt Whitcomb said Sargent was disappointed to lose contact with the front three on a technical downhill while skiing in fourth.
“She missed the draft that was pretty critical if she wanted to advance to the semifinal,” he said. “But she was skiing fast; she’s in good shape.”
Considering the U.S. put three in the top 10 (including Newell) on Friday, Whitcomb said it was a successful day for both the men and the women.
“To put four girls in the heats at World Cup Finals is a big accomplishment,” he said. “First day of Finals, this Friday in Falun has traditionally been a pretty big day for the women’s team and it was again today, with four in the top 20 and two girls in the finals. It was pretty exciting to have Sadie, Sophie and Kikkan go one, two, three in their quarterfinal heat.
“We had exceptional skis out there, both kick and glide,” he added. “Overall just such a tremendous end to a really successful year for Kikkan grabbing the third-consecutive sprint Globe is such a big accomplishment and to finish it with a fourth place in a classic sprint is really big. I’m so proud of Kikkan and Sophie and the whole team – it’s a team accomplishment.”
— Pasha Kahn, Seth Adams, and Rosalie Lipfert contributed reporting
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.